Proving Ground

Scotland v Ireland - Match Preview (Proving Ground) Header Photo
Leading By Example: Stuart Hogg breaks through the Irish defence in February of last year. The Scottish captain has been sensational since rugby resumed post-lockdown and his own form is a reflection of his team’s change in fortunes. After being soundly beaten by Ireland for a number of years (bar the occasional blip), Scotland produced a performance against them at the start of the 2020 Six Nations that was, in truth, deserving of a win. Their Autumn Nations Cup clash was a bit more one-sided, but since the start of 2021, Gregor Townsend’s side look to have grown into a team that have the grit to match their attacking flair, and Murrayfield has not been Ireland’s favourite travel destination over the last decade.

There’s no telling how Scotland’s 2021 Six Nations campaign would have gone had Zander Fagerson not received a red card in their meeting with Wales. Much like Peter O’Mahony’s identical offence against the same opponent, it was a sliding doors moment that would have presumably seen Scotland win the game if the sanction was any less severe, and as impressive as France have been, it’s not outside the realms of possibility that Gregor Townsend’s side could have achieved something special in Paris two weeks ago if the match had gone ahead and Scotland had gone there on a high.

As it stands, they have a solitary win under their belts, and although Ireland are on par with them, it has to be taken into account that Andy Farrell’s side have had the luxury of playing a young Italian team that are enduring a tough Championship. As off-colour as England are this year, If Ireland had played them instead of the Azzurri in Round 3, they would probably be on course for a wooden spoon. They are currently in dire need of a convincing win over a big team, but that’s going to be easier said than done against a matured Scottish team with no discernible frailties.

Coming Of Age

Over the course of the last seven or so years, Scotland had earned a reputation as a team who were renowned for exciting back play, but wilted when opposition teams forced them to engage in the less glamorous parts of the game. 2021 has seen them develop a pragmatic streak to go with their propensity for adventure in attack, though, with their kicking out of hand going from a weakness to a strength.

In their first game of the competition, they won their kicking duel with England, a team who are the foremost territorial side in the northern hemisphere at present:

Stuart Hogg is a world-class counter-attacker, but his booming left boot has been used to good effect by Scotland lately, and when you add this to the variety of kicks that Finn Russell has in his armoury, Scotland are now less likely to be pinned back in their own half than they have been in recent years.

Attack-minded teams usually view the set-pieces as a means of restarting the game, but with the addition of Scott Cummings, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson to their pack, Scotland’s maul has turned into a weapon that they can use to generate front-foot ball:

This is cause for concern for Ireland because in the past, they wouldn’t have had to commit too many bodies to stemming Scotland’s flow in this facet of the game, thereby giving themselves more defenders in the backline. However, now that Scotland can hurt them with their maul, they will have to throw more bodies into this area, which will make them more vulnerable to wide movements.

The quality of Scotland’s forward carrying has improved, too, with greater heft in the pack allowing them to eke out hard yards, something that they struggled to do in the last couple of years. Hamish Watson was previously their go-to player for making ground near the ruck, but the likes of Rory Sutherland and Matt Fagerson have brought bone-crunching physicality into the mix, and with Jonny Gray developing the kind of wrought-iron strength that comes to second rowers with age, Scotland are now capable of punishing teams around the fringes:

The same applies to their efforts in the tight phases in defence as well. When Wales tried to put the squeeze on them, Scotland fronted up manfully, demonstrating a hard edge in contact:

This is going to be a problem for Ireland because their victories over Scotland normally come as a result of putting them through the wringer with relentless one-out carries from CJ Stander and co., so a rethink of their attacking strategy might be in order.

More Than One Way To Skin A Cat

Ever since the start of Vern Cotter’s tenure, Scotland have employed a wide-wide style of attack with long passes from Finn Russell to their dangerous back three being the preferred method of creating line-breaks, but they have added more strings to their bow as of late. While there have still been some stellar individual and team tries from them in this Championship, they have complemented their ability to put the ball through the hands by unlocking defences with chip kicks:

Long-range passes to a winger have been a trademark of Russell’s game, but it doesn’t work if the defence have rushed across quickly enough to close that space down (and there’s always the rick of an intercept), but the Racing out-half now identifies and exploits gaps further infield with clever sleight of hand:

The introduction of Duhan van der Merwe has added another dimension to Scotland’s attack, albeit an altogether less subtle one. The Edinburgh winger has been consistently superb at club level, and wasted no time in bringing the impact he has made in the Pro14 and Europe to the Test arena as soon as he was capped, with his immense power being just as effective in midfield as it is out wide, and he provides a more direct alternative to Sean Maitland, Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham:

Ireland are no strangers to the threat he poses, and they must be prepared for the possibility of him popping up anywhere along the Scottish attacking line if they are to prevent him from having a decisive influence on the outcome of this game.

Tactical Conundrum

It’s hard to know how Ireland are going to approach this fixture tactically because of the improvements that Scotland have made to the nuts-and-bolts aspects of their game. Back at the end of the Autumn Nations Cup, Ireland executed a brutally simple game plan of going up the middle of Scotland with gain line busting carries, and then spreading the ball wide when their defenders had been skittled, but it’s unlikely that the same tactics will bear fruit for them this Sunday unless the hosts regress suddenly or have an off day.

Scotland’s defensive line has become more organised and aggressive under Steve Tandy, so we’re guaranteed to see Ireland use the boot regularly, but kicking long to Stuart Hogg would be foolish, so scraping grubbers are the wisest course of action. Ireland’s defensive lineout has been the best in the tournament, and Scotland don’t have a forward in their pack who is over 6’6”, with neither Hamish Watson or Matt Fagerson being standout lineout jumpers.

Given the aforementioned potency of the Scotland maul, I would expect Ireland to be highly competitive on the opposition throw, but the question remains, where do they go from there? Ali Price tends to act as a sweeper in the Scottish defensive system, so they can’t target him with carries, and I wouldn’t describe Russell as an out-and-out weak link. James Lowe v Darcy Graham is a match-up that Ireland will be aiming to engineer later on in the game, but now is really the time for their multi-phase attack to click, and they will be hoping that Scottish rustiness gives them some sort of an advantage.

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